Some people are really good at giving presents–I am NOT one of those people. I am the worst. There are a few reasons why I am terrible at giving gifts: 1) I am a man–The man who is a good gift-giver is the exception to the rule. 2) I forget everything–I think of good ideas and then promptly forget them. And 3) I can’t remember what #3 was supposed to be, but it was good. Part of the reason I suck at gifts is that I don’t care much about receiving them. I’m not really sure when this happened, as I can clearly remember that I liked getting presents as a kid–I think it was sometime shortly after they stopped making Star Wars figurines…. Anyway, at some point, the worst of all childhood gifts became my most cherished gift: Socks. Now the only gifts I really want are things that make me more comfortable–Maybe some good SmartWool socks, maybe a new pair of house pants, and maybe a nice bottle of Bourbon. Still, as nice as all these things are, if I didn’t get a thing for my birthday, I would be just fine.
My wife, however….
What a cruel twist of fate it was for a sweet soul like my wife, who especially feels love through receiving gifts, to fall for a overly content, forgetful, procrastinating, function-over-form, cynical-of-all-things-that-smell-anything-like-commercialism, incredibly sexy man like me. And to top it all off, I have generations upon generations of Dutch thriftiness pulsing through my veins, making it next to impossible for me to spend money–even on things we genuinely NEED. So when a “Holiday” like Valentines Day rolls around, it stresses me right out. I feel torn between wanting her to feel loved in a way that translates to her and wanting her to understand that flowers are stupid. I’m sorry, but they are–You spend more than most people in the world make in a year (Unless you buy them at 3:00 AM at Walmart for $10 and clip off the diseased petals after you get home…. Not that I would ever do that) for a dozen things that are going to be droopy, dead, pains in the ass within 3 days.
But what do I know? I am no expert on how to love. I have a lot of experience with FEELING love, but not so much with the actual ACT OF LOVING. There’s a bit of folklore about Thomas Edison where someone asks him about all of his failures at creating a working lightbulb. As the story goes, he was asked if he grew discouraged about his thousands of failures, but he responded, “I haven’t failed–I have found thousands of ways not to make a lightbulb.” If I have any expertise or wisdom in the area of showing love, it has most likely been gained by learning what NOT to do. If life is like an education, marriage is like Doctorate level courses in what does and doesn’t work when it comes to showing love. As Valentine’s Day approaches, I have been thinking more and more about how to love. Here are five things I’ve come up with:
“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” — Henry David Thoreau
LISTEN TO THEM. I think that one of the best ways you can really love a person is to genuinely listen to them. A lifetime of selfishness has conditioned me to be a horrible listener. I have become very skilled at anticipating a pause in someone’s speech patterns where I can jump in and give the person I am “listening” to what I believe to be a very special gift: My thoughts. I am terrible at this. I am 36 years old, and I still have to constantly remind myself that waiting for my chance to speak is not listening. Larry King once said, “Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” And the more I learn, the more I learn that I’ve got a lot to learn…. Many times, I am in such a hurry to be clever or insightful that I fail to honestly listen. Listening means letting another person’s words to change you–even in some small way (I mean, I’ve heard…. I’ve never really tried it). It is putting down a cell phone, closing a laptop, and turning of a TV. It is turning your yourself toward a person, and allowing yourself feel what that person feels.
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
LOOK AT THEM. Not too long ago, I noticed myself trying to avoid eye-contact with the people trying to sell the homeless newspapers while I sat in my car waiting for the light to change. I did this because it’s way easier to keep yourself from having any sort of emotional understanding with someone when you don’t look them in the eyes. I have been on the other side of this as well–watching as a person does everything in their power to NOT make eye-contact with me after leaving me a crap tip at the restaurant. When I realized the similarities, I decided that I will never again avoid making eye-contact with a poor person asking me for something–I may not be able to help them that day, but I sure the hell am going to look at him while telling him that. It is much, much harder to be selfish when you are looking someone in their eyes. There are all kinds of things that take up our time every day, but to really love someone, we must take the time to really let our gaze linger with theirs. It is that thing Matthew Arnold takes about in “The Buried Life” where “Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear…. And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.” The more we look at each other, the better we do at loving each other–that goes for Valentines just as well as homeless people.
“At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.” — Plato
TOUCH THEM. This one has always been easier for me (not just the romantic kind of touch, though that’s fun too). While growing up, every once in a while we would stay at a cottage during the Summer with my extended family. When it was time for bed, I would hug everyone in the cottage–many of them people who were not normally very physically affectionate. Even at a young age, a simple act like this changes the atmosphere. There is something so healing about physical touch. Like a foot crossing over to your side of the bed when you accidentally go to bed angry, or a hug that lasts as long as the person who needs it more wants it to last, or rubbing lotion that smells like minty/floral garbage onto calloused feet, or a simple back rub while she’s sitting at the computer, or just holding hands while walking together…. Sometimes we attempt to explain things with words that can only be understood with a touch.
“I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, but only more love.” — Mother Teresa
HELP THEM. I’m convinced that one of the coolest things that you can ask a person is “Can I help you with anything?” When I think that I deserve help, things almost never go well–This is especially true when the person you’re expecting help from feels the same way (this happens in any relationship, but I think it happens even more often in ones that involve kids). When I am looking for a way to help, a few cool things happen: 1) I can almost always find one. 2) It makes everyone happier. Everyone. 3) Even when I am exhausted, helping someone almost always energizes me (I can never remember this. For some reason, the things that will make things easier almost always feel too hard to do. This is true for many things: Exercise, taking care of things around the house, and even showing love to the one we love most). To help someone is to love someone.
“Forgiveness is the final form of love.” –Reinhold Niebuhr
FORGIVE THEM. The more I’m around me, the clearer it is that I have many faults. These faults have never been as prominently displayed as they have since I’ve been married. Marriage is like a giant spotlight shining on our our weaknesses. And as scary as this can be, the cool thing about seeing your own failings more clearly is that you can more clearly see how we all need forgiveness. When looking for a reason to forgive, we needn’t look any further than our own reflection. The offenses we hang onto are reflections of our own insecurity. Someone once said, “Forgiveness is setting the prisoner free, and then finding out that the prisoner was you.” This is never as true as it is when we forgive the ones we love.
There are plenty of ways to love that I’m missing (doing special things for no reason, getting enough sleep, remembering special occasions, etc…), but these are the ones I’m focusing on: Listen, Look, Touch, Help, & Forgive. It seems simple enough, but like Morpheus said, “Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize, just as I did, that there’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.” God knows I’m no expert on how to love–I’m obviously writing this more to myself than anyone else–but if this inspires anyone else to “walk the path” a little better this Valentine’s Day, I suppose that will be a good thing. Tell you what: You might as well buy her some flowers too (this brings up another way to love: Buy her stuff she likes even when you think it’s stupid). Love is a pretty amazing path to walk down. Happy Valentines Day, Sweetie! This counts as a present.